When it comes to holiday drinking, eggnog is only the beginning. Many cultures and cuisines proudly claim a Christmas punch and this week we're bringing you The Global Punch Bowl with five festive punches, each with a story of their own.
There was still one week left for Christmas and the fridge was already full of bottles of this mysterious café con leche-like beverage with a funny name (cola de mono literally means "monkey tail") that my parents offered to any adult visitor (usually very old, very single, and very Catholic ladies) as a way of not getting the hiccups when eating the often dry and impossibly sweet, pan de pascua — an awesome but very dense Chilean fruit cake.
My dad would have devoted a whole Saturday morning to boiling milk with spices, managing to cover the entire kitchen with sugar, coffee, and pisco. I couldn't drink it, because "tiene trago, mijita" (it contains alcohol, my dear). My mom would say this to me after chugging her glass and before congratulating my dad on his innate talent for cola de mono-making.
But I would not settle for that.
After lunch, when everyone was having their mandatory nap from 2 to 4 p.m., the 7-year-old me would silently open the fridge door and steal a good sip of cola de mono, and then, emboldened, I would search for the hidden presents that relatives from Santiago sent us.
Caffeine wasn't new for me. Since I was 3, my dad would give me a tiny cup of strong cafecito every morning. Nobody ever questioned that besides the adult me, but not really. Of course the alcohol was new, and with the sugar rush on top of it I was feeling like Penny from Inspector Gadget in the search of the hidden gift — one that I deeply wanted to be a mermaid Barbie doll.
The Taste of Christmas in Chile
The aromas of the cola de mono are deeply imprinted in my memory. So when I tested this recipe, my eyes watered and I realized how much I miss Christmas in Chile, where it happens in summer and we eat crab meat-stuffed avocados, my mom's three-colored molded rice salad, and my dad's lamb roast. A huge platter of the most luxurious and perfect early summer fruit is served as dessert.
After several tests, my recipe ended being a modern version of my dad's. Same as him, I use freshly brewed strong coffee that cuts the sugar and provides an always-welcome dose of caffeine. The traditional recipe also calls for boiling the milk, but I don't find it necessary. Instead of dissolving the sugar in the hot milk, I make a spiced simple syrup that helps with the texture and highlights the spices. The result? A drink that's a nice combination of sweet and rich, mildly alcoholic and caffeinated, and one that feels like a warm, comforting Christmas hug.
Aguardiente and Pisco: The Spirits of Cola de Mono
Cola de mono is made with milk, coffee, a mix of spices, and aguardiente or pisco, in proportions and preparations that vary according to each household or bar.
Aguardiente is a very traditional, rustic spirit made by distilling the leftover musts and macerations from winemaking after pressing the grapes. Pisco, meanwhile, is a high-quality spirit with a much more refined flavor profile, with delicate grape and fruit aromas and a lower alcohol content. Chilean regulations state that pisco can only be distilled using 13 traditional grape varieties (Moscatel rosada, de Alejandría, and Pedro Jiménez being the most common) and grown in two specific zones in the north of the country, while aguardiente can be made with other grapes grown in other regions.
And more importantly for our case, Chilean pisco is exported so it can be found in the U.S., while aguardiente can only be found in Chile.
So Why the Funny Name?
I've heard several stories about how cola de mono got its name. The first one refers to recycled Spanish Anís del Mono liqueur bottles, in which cola de mono was originally sold at the old restaurant Confitería Torres. The bottle had an illustration of a monkey with a long tail. The second story is the most popular and documented, and makes reference to the Colt pistol of the President Pedro Montt (1906–1910).
While at a fancy house party in downtown Santiago, Montt was attempting to leave, but couldn't because someone hid his Colt pistol, causing him to stay to look for it. In another ploy to have him remain at the party, a pitcher of café con leche (coffee with milk) was doctored up with some aguardiente because all the wine was already gone. Apparently the concoction was a success. It was graciously called "Colt de Montt," honoring the hidden gun. Along the way the drink grew in popularity and years later the name, phonetically corrupted, ended up sounding like "cola de mono" or even "colemono" — also a valid name used for this drink today.
Serving Cola de Mono
My dad, emphatic, says cola de mono shouldn't be served as an aperitif, although it usually is. He recommends it as an evening replacement for coffee or tea. I agree. It can be too heave to drink it before a meal. Try it as a late-night treat, along with cookies or leftover fruitcake.
Chilean Holiday Punch (Cola de Mono)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup cold water
1/2 ounce Mexican cinnamon sticks (about 4 sticks)
2 whole cloves
1 quart (4 cups) whole milk
1 1/2 cups freshly brewed strong coffee, cold
1 1/2 cups Chilean pisco
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Place the sugar, water, cinnamon sticks, and cloves in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat as needed and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
Transfer the syrup, including the whole spices, to a large pitcher. Add the milk, coffee, pisco, and vanilla, and stir well to combine. Cover with plastic wrap. (Optional: Transfer to glass bottles and seal.) Refrigerate until chilled, a few hours or overnight.
Pour about 1/2 cup of cola de mono in small tumbler glasses. Always serve very cold paired with Christmas cookies, stollen, or as it is traditional, with pan de pascua (Chilean-style fruitcake).
- Coffee: Use a medium or dark roast coffee. I used French roast and it worked wonderfully.
- Dairy-free version: Make a dairy-free version using unsweetened almond milk.
- Spices: The traditional combination of spices is cinnamon, clove, and vanilla. Some people also add nutmeg, star anise, or orange peels (without the white pith). Play and personalize yours!
- Liquor options: Use Chilean pisco, Chilean aguardiente, Italian Grappa, or Peruvian Pisco. Chilean pisco or aguardiente works better because it imparts the traditional flavor. Also, as its aromas are more subtle than in Italian grappa or Peruvian pisco, it doesn't overshadow the coffee and spices. Chilean pisco brands sold in the U.S. are Capel, Alto del Carmen, Mistral, Kappa, and Wakar.
- Storage: The punch can be stored in the refrigerator for up to to 5 days.